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The 7 Principles of Effective Communications Explained by Bill McGowan

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Last week we brought you a series of tips on pitching and media relations from author, veteran journalist and Clarity Media Group founder Bill McGowan, most recently known as media coach to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (among many other celebrities and executives).

Today we bring you an extension of our conversation touching on the seven principles that form the basis of McGowan’s most recent book Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time.

In this piece, Bill explains how these principles apply to both the general art of communicating and the public relations practice–with a little help from one Donald Draper.

The Headline Principle: Start Strong

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How does this principle apply to pitches and email subject lines?

In addition to knowing what your point is and how to illustrate it, I’m trying to get people from proficient to polished by adding a third consideration: what are the first five words out of your mouth?

I don’t want them to be “Well, you know, I mean…”; that’s the verbal equivalent of running in place. I want the first five words to be content, not sound. When people start with crisp content in a concise, declarative statement, it lends so much more to the idea of executive presence and polish without being overly formal.

In terms of email, your subject line should almost be a tease; it should raise a slight question to encourage them to read your message rather than making an explanatory statement.

The Scorsese Principle: Think Visually

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How does this principal apply to content? (Example: Tesla’s recent GIF-filled press release)

Stories are 6,000 times more memorable than facts. If you want your content to be ‘sticky’ and more conducive to sharing, ‘visual storytelling’ is a crucial strategy—whether you actually include video or you just have the gift of being a storyteller who can draw an image in the reader’s mind.

In the case of a story like Tesla’s, you start the release by writing, ‘the 2,000-pound camera placed on its end looked like a mangled piece of iron’. You describe it and make people curious as opposed to writing ‘Today Tesla announced that they are replacing a shield on…’

There’s a subtle art to that.

The Pasta Sauce Principle: Boil Things Down to Their Essence

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How does this principle apply to writing and speaking?

We all have a tendency to over-stuff our sentences, but when you’re not telling your own story, brevity is preferable.

I go back and cut everything I write by about 25%. It’s a matter of getting into the mindset of ‘Am I employing the absolute greatest economy of words here’? Even after writing for TV for 20 years, I go back to every email I write and figure out a way to remove 20 words. Crispness and efficiency affect how your communication is received, and it’s incredibly rewarding when the person on the other end comes away with the impression that you’re not wasting a second of their time; that’s close to being heroic.

The same holds true in a meeting: if you can end that 45-minute meeting after 35 minutes and give people 10 minutes of their day back, that’s the greatest gift you could possibly give them.

Isn’t there an inherent challenge in combining this principle with the Scorsese principle?

That’s the greatest source of skepticism among my colleagues, who think that being anecdotal and being concise are mutually exclusive. They’re not.

The major points: know what the punch line or the payoff or the reveal of the story is. You have to read the room and know when you’re reaching the limit of engagement. If you’re pushing your luck, you have to bring the finish line close. You can’t rush through your story, but it has to be collapsible to some extent.

In the interest of brevity, certain adjectives are overused. ‘Exciting’ has been beaten to death; it’s become the new ‘nice’, a word that has absolutely no impact.

Other words that should be stricken from the PR lexicon: very, amazing, groundbreaking, unique, innovative. ‘We’re uniquely positioned’ means nothing.

The Conviction Principle: Believe What You Say

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How do you reconcile the conflict in promoting a product that you know not to be truly “unique?”

Rather than say ‘we have a unique product/brand proposition’, maybe you can articulate the common challenge people are trying to overcome with this product.

Instead of showing your hand immediately, you engage the listener by discussing a common experience that we can all relate to. The more empathetic point is framed in terms of problem solution and establishing the answer to the question ‘why do you need this?’

The No-Tailgating Principle: Think Before You Speak

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How can this principle strengthen messaging efforts?

It’s about following the conversation at a safe distance rather than forcing it, which could apply to the habit of repeating a talking point rather than listening to the conversation around that point.

You never want to just say the first thing that pops into your head.

The ultimate goal is to have more time to reflect and contemplate on what you’re going to say before you open your mouth rather than trailing the client, who serves as “the lead car.”

In the case of an in-person pitch, this would mean not tripping over yourself to recite your talking points.

It’s a combination of better prep and moderating your speaking pace so you can be more certain about what it is you want to say. There’s an essential formula: the less certain you are about the next word coming out of your mouth, the slower you should be talking.

This also relates to anticipating challenges. Most people think a pitch is a monologue, but you have to account for the fact that you will be challenged to really support what it is you are presenting.

You should approach it like a game of chess: if I say point A and make this move, what skepticism or challenge could the other party present, and what’s my response to that?

It’s important to think a couple of moves ahead.

The Curiosity Principle: Pay Attention!

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You can’t give the client a feeling that their contribution to the conversation is really just a break from you talking. You have to let them know that you’re considering it, reflecting on it, and then responding to it.

A lot of it has to do with your eye contact, your facial expressiveness, how you’re sitting in the chair, etc. If you’re looking all around the room while they’re talking, you’re leaving yourself open to be interpreted as bored, disinterested and apathetic.

In a scenario where you never meet the party face-to-face, that would be a little more challenging.

Obviously your tone of voice has a lot to do with how you’re perceived: everyone wants to do business with someone who gives them a good feeling.

That’s not to be minimized; the degree to which you’re positive in your outlook–warm, welcoming, respectful of other people’s ideas, empathetic, not narcissistic—factors into how the client perceives you.

If you can say to the client, ‘the point you raise is something I thought of as well and here are my thoughts on that,’ you’re acknowledging that their skepticism has merit rather than dismissing it.

Alternately, you can say, ‘That’s a legitimate concern and it’s something that will really impact the final product. Here’s why I think the way we’re proceeding will answer that.’

If it’s a concern your client has, then you’re going to have to respond to it.

The Draper Principle: Steer the Conversation

What makes Draper so successful?

What made his greatest pitch (the ‘carousel’) so memorable is the fact that it wasn’t about the product; it was about the people, the stories and the emotion behind what the product does for you.

Key questions: how does it make you feel, and how does it help you feel more connected to the things that matter?

In last year’s season finale, Draper managed to do that in the Hershey pitch. Before he completely self-destructed, the pitch was very similar: the visual of his dad taking him to the drug store, rewarding him with a candy bar, etc.

He hit the wall when he realized that he couldn’t keep up the charade any longer.

To wrap things up, could you explain in a little more detail how your book relates to communications professionals?

I’ve had this amazing–see, there’s that word again–opportunity to see human nature on display from tens of thousands of hours of coaching over the past 13 years.

What we say and how we say it plays a huge role in how successful we are in doing our jobs, yet we leave way too much of the content to be generated in the moment.

People would be more open to putting more thought and preparation into making things ‘pitch perfect’ if they had a system to use—if they had something that felt like it wasn’t too time-consuming.

The book gives readers a framework with which to be more thoughtful and intentional before a meeting in the office, a customer service call or a conversation with a friend where you have to apologize.

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